On the edge of Museumplein in Amsterdam, about one hundred metres from the American Consulate, is a striking monument. It is a stark metallic structure, comprising eleven stainless steel panels and a tall cylinder, all arranged in a semi-circle. The monument is stunning in its simplicity. It is elegant and graceful, strong, refined, beautiful. Yet at the same time, it is crisp and industrial, suggesting a no-nonsense, sturdy, reliability. It is steadfast and reassuring, and always thought-provoking. I want to be like that monument. So far I have "crisp" down pat. Working on the others.
The cylinder emits light and sounds that are reflected by the metallic panels. The pattern is unpredictable. The effect is powerful.
The monument is my favourite beautiful thing in a city full of beautiful things.On 21 January 2017, I stood beside it, as I often do. Through the shimmering stainless steel panels I watched in awe as three thousand concerned men, women, children and dogs stood respectfully in front of the Consulate, raising a calm, united voice against an unprincipled, vulgar, discriminatory tyrant who raged an ocean away. For more than an hour we had marched together, standing against the threat we felt he posed to the civilised world. We insisted that decency, fairness and kindness prevail in the world. We announced that we would brook no discrimination or division. We gave unequivocal notice that we would not stand for asinine cruelty or ignorant generalisations.
We made the same points we had been making to our children since they were toddlers. Share. Be kind. Show empathy and compassion. Don’t hit your sister. Listen authentically. Consider others people's perspectives. Don’t tell lies. You won’t always get what you want. Admit your mistakes. Don’t hit your brother. Don’t try to solve a disagreement by yelling. Don’t grab other people’s genitals. Get a haircut.
Even the dog gets it.
His sign says "Even I know that
grabbing pussy is not ok.
The difference, on that sunny January day, was that most of our children had understood the gist of society’s message well before they finished high school. Most of them were responsive and responsible, even if some of them could still do with more frequent haircuts and were still occasionally surly and mean to their parents. Few of us among the three thousand could comprehend why we now had to repeat the same messages to a seventy year old narcissistic buffoon. Could the world really be going to hell in a hand basket simply because one little boy missed the kindergarten memo about playground ethics that was handed out in the middle of last century?
Yet here we were, gathering by the thousands, not just in Amsterdam, but in hundreds of cities across every continent on earth. Millions of good men and women, mindful of the dangers of arrogance, of blind, reactive protectionism, of singling out one group of humans for barbaric and unjust treatment.
The Dutch have seen this sort of caper before. They are familiar with the swaggering bully character, strutting around the playground like a puffed-up little rooster, and they know the devastating havoc he can wreak. They are very aware of the fruitlessness of constantly punching the quiet, sad kid in the corner. They know that nationalistic propaganda can generate fear and uncertainty for decades. Indeed, they have built monuments to remind themselves and the world to remain vigilant against those attitudes.
One such monument is the one standing sentinel on the edge of Museumplein in Amsterdam; the Women of Ravensbruck (1940-45) monument. My favourite beautiful thing in a city of beautiful things. As I stood beside it on the day of the Women's March, I looked at the inscription on one of the stainless steel panels. What a missed opportunity to have gathered so close to this monument without anyone acknowledging its significance or paying tribute to the women it recalled. But how uplifting to realise that, like the monument, most of humanity remains refined, beautiful, sturdy, reliable. And sometimes a little crisp. The inscription, reflecting all the hope inherent in a sunny January afternoon, is more relevant than ever. It reads:
“For she who until the last moment kept saying no to fascism”.We will keep saying no. And when our last moment comes, others will step in to keep saying no.
And like the light and sound emanating from the monument, our pattern will be unpredictable and our effect will be powerful.